Fox News has perfected the art of curating anger-inducing stories of liberal excess, unfortunate tweets, and narrative-reinforcing outliers from around the country for its audience. What began with the “War on Christmas” -- an annual boon for the right-wing outrage industry in which Fox elevates every story from the name of Tulsa’s “holiday parade” to a Pennsylvania school’s choice of holiday pageants to a story of national importance -- has since become year-round celebrations of rage and disinformation.
As the network navigates an era in which beliefs in baseless right-wing conspiracy theories act as litmus tests for one’s Republican bonafides, Fox’s reliance on cherry-picked narratives has become increasingly apparent. This trend, which has been a long time in the making, has shifted the focus from manufactured wars on seasonal holidays to an actual war on reality through misrepresentation.
Local news outlets and social media posts are mined for minor controversies and outrage bait.
In December 2018, I wrote an article explaining how Tucker Carlson uses his Fox News program to wage various culture wars by creating a sort of “greatest hits” of obscure local news that’s hand-selected and optimized to get his audience worked up into a rage.
An obscure Cleveland-area radio station didn’t include the song “Baby, It’s Cold Outside”? Carlson covered it. A student created a “cry closet” as an art project? Carlson covered (and misrepresented) it. A New Jersey high school didn’t cut anyone from its cheerleading squad one year? Carlson was all over it. You get the idea. None of these stories warranted national news coverage, but because they advanced Carlson’s narrative depiction of liberals as fragile hypocrites obsessed with censoring things they don’t like, he made them national news stories.
When I wrote the piece about Carlson’s show being less of a nationally broadcast news program and more of a “local news broadcast from hell,” he hadn’t yet established himself as the unquestioned face of Fox News. In the years since, that’s changed, as has the ubiquity of that model.
Recent Fox News coverage centered on “cancel culture” shows how the “local news broadcast from hell” model works.
Earlier this month, Fox News devoted an inordinate amount of time to whipping up a “cancel culture” frenzy over a single San Francisco Gate op-ed that briefly mentioned discomfort with an aspect of a ride at Disneyland. This mention was portrayed as though it was some widely held obsession of people on the left and that there was a massive effort to “cancel” Snow White.
Additionally, as Media Matters recently found, Fox News has massively increased the amount of time it devotes to discussing trans athletes, airing 126 discussions about the issue between January 2019 and March 2021, and made what has generally been a nonissue into one of the Republican Party’s key policy positions. Even with relatively few stories to pull from -- Fox cited just nine examples of trans athletes in its discussions -- conservative media outlets have helped encourage dozens of states to adopt bans on trans students being allowed to compete in school sports based on the unwarranted elevation of stories about Connecticut high school track and field championships to matters of national importance.
There are countless examples of right-wing media, often driven by Fox News, leaning on obscure examples to make broader arguments to support their position in the culture war.
In 2014, Fox News whipped itself into a frenzy over a pamphlet promoting gender-inclusive language given out at a handful of schools in Nebraska. In 2019, some in right-wing media were outraged that charcoal face masks had been deemed racist, a claim that was based on three tweets, two of which were jokes and the other from an account with 11 followers. The goal of this narrative is to cast people on the left as fragile “snowflakes'' who hate freedom. In an article I wrote at the time, I listed a handful of other noncontroversies that right-wing media eagerly ran with despite little evidence that people were actually upset about things like the iOS bagel emoji, a minor league baseball team hosting a “Millennial Night,” or IHOP temporarily renaming itself “IHOb” to promote burgers.
The slow transition to this destructive news model dates back to the Nixon administration and the right’s obsession with gatekeepers of the news.
In a November 1969 speech to the Midwestern Regional Republican Conference in Des Moines, Iowa, Vice President Spiro Agnew laid the foundation for what would become the “local news broadcast from hell” model that Fox News would adopt decades later. In the speech, Agnew railed against the “tiny, enclosed fraternity of privileged men elected by no one” and did not “represent the views of America” but who determined what made it into the evening news broadcasts and what went unreported.
It’s not as though Agnew was necessarily wrong in calling out the role that editorial choices played in shaping public opinion. On the contrary, editorial decisions can often be opaque. The New York Times boasts that the paper reports “all the news that’s fit to print,” an admission of the obvious fact that no media outlet, not even the paper of record, can truly cover everything.
But Agnew wasn’t calling for more transparency in how those sorts of editorial decisions were made, and he wasn’t making a push for the broader diversification of media. Instead, as has been the case throughout the right-wing campaign against the “liberal media,” the argument being made was that the corrupt systems would be OK if conservatives were the ones in charge of them.
Decisions over which stories get told shape the world around us, for good and ill, and the people behind the scenes making those decisions have massive power over what we care about as a society. In the world of right-wing media, that means picking stories that can advance whatever specific narrative helps advance their political agenda. Fox News came into existence in part to protect Republicans from criticism and to create a more conservative reality. That’s exactly what the network is doing when it selects obscure stories to present as representative of the world.
Fox News uses the finite amount of time it has to broadcast each day to blast its audience with carefully curated local news stories that will leave them woefully uninformed but righteously angry.